Workshopping: or, why I love making things with kids

I’ve been doing some summer workshops for local authority playschemes and libraries. There are lots of these around all over Britain, intended to keep kids off the streets in the holidays.

I’m not altogether sure that’s a good thing. When I was a child I loved playing in the street, on vacant bits of land and building sites, in the open fields of nearby farms. I loved the independence, the chance to manufacture my own fantasies and adventures, the shifting alliances and complex negotiations with other kids. That little taste of freedom came with some risks, but they were relatively small ones – lost shoes or jackets, damaged bikes, skinned knees,  involuntary dunkings in pond or river water, the occasional broken bone. It seems that nowadays the risks go beyond what parents will tolerate. So children’s worlds get smaller. Their fantasies and adventures are pre-assembled in toy factories, or delivered on screens. When these pall, parents are grateful for the small army of writers, artists and holidaying teachers who run sessions on local authority playschemes.

The grunts in that army are grateful too, and not just for the extra income stream. A workshop offers the chance to test your ideas and skills in the most unforgiving consumer environment in the world. Not that the attendees are especially difficult – I’ve seen far more obstructive, truculent, bullying or whiney adults on office-mandated courses than I have kids on playschemes. It’s just that they’re completely honest. You deliver or they switch off. No writer or actor has ever had a review so withering, so soul-destroying, as the painful courtesy of a group of well-brought-up but very bored under-twelves at a workshop that isn’t working.

On the other hand, if you pull it off – if you give them a session that stretches them, surprises them, makes them feel good about what they can do already and then teaches them something new – there are very few sensations to equal it. That’s one reason why I keep accepting invitations to schools and libraries, and developing new workshops. Another is that I think it makes me a better writer and speaker for older audiences. If I can communicate theory, techniques and structures to a group of under-sevens, coherently enough that they can understand it and make something concrete using the ideas, I’ll be OK talking to their aunts, uncles and parents.

I had some concrete evidence of that last week, after a library session on the techniques of manga-style drawing. The kids did great work, but the real proof of the session’s success came when a fortysomething library user came up to me as I was getting ready to leave and asked if I did adult teaching sessions as well.

That particular workshop took me into a new area. I’ve been doing comic-making workshops for several years now, but teaching art technique is a new area for me.  Yet at every almost comic-making workshop I’m asked to show someone how to draw ‘manga style’. I was taught to draw competently in school, so I understand the principles, but I’m not an especially good artist. Observing my partner, who is, has reinforced my artistic education and shown me ways to demonstrate and explain that I was convinced would work for everyone. So I adapted some of his work, broke it down into stages, devised an hour-long workshop and suddenly I’m teaching simple art techniques in a way that works, not just for manga but for all drawing styles. I know it works, because twenty children aged from six to twelve are excited and absorbed, and at the end of just an hour they’ve understood the principles and produced work so good that even they seem surprised.

Children explore small areas in small ways. Working with them has taught me that being an explorer in a small way yields unexpectedly big rewards. When I was a child I loved open fields and vacant lots; now, my interests lead me into undefined areas, places I’ve never looked at before. If there are some fences to get over, around or through, that makes it even more fun. One of my groups last week spent the first five minutes looking baffled. It took most of my stock of low cunning and bad jokes to keep their attention, but once they had grasped the basic principle, it dawned on them that the seemingly arcane things I was asking them to do actually made drawing easier and more fun. They they started to fly, and the challenge shifted from keeping them up to keeping up with them.

I’ve been doing the same thing with my Manga Cross-Stitch workshops at conventions and cultural events – showing people some simple techniques to help them unleash their own inner creativity. I’ve started to think what fun it would be to lead a cross-stitch workshop for children. Artistic inspiration flows best for me when I work with textiles and threads. I love the added dimension that the creativity of weavers, spinners and dyers brings to my work, and the true sense of community that I get from building my work on the foundation they provide. It’s the same with scholarship – I am constantly enriched and comforted by the knowledge that my own work is building on the work of generations before me, and that I in turn will become part of the foundation of someone else’s mind-structure. Maybe one of the people reading my new book will take something from it and produce work of their own that will go on to inspire others long after we’re both gone. Fifteen years from now, when I’m in my dotage, maybe one of the kids at last week’s workshop will produce a comic or design a film or make a piece of art that will do the same thing.

But, leaving aside all the grand and lasting stuff, and even leaving aside the money, workshops and playschemes let me spend time with a group of curious, clever, funny people who absolutely love creating and are determined to enjoy life in every way possible for as long as the world will let them. And that’s why I love making things with kids.

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